An Inspector Calls
First edition (1947) with dust jacket
Written byJ. B. Priestley
Date premiered6 July 1945
Place premieredMoscow, Soviet Union
Original languageEnglish
GenreDrama
SettingEdwardian England

An Inspector Calls is a modern morality play written by English dramatist J. B. Priestley, first performed in the Soviet Union in 1945[1] and at the New Theatre in London the following year.[2] It is one of Priestley's best-known works for the stage and is considered to be one of the classics of mid-20th century English theatre. The play's success and reputation were boosted by a successful revival by English director Stephen Daldry for the National Theatre in 1992[3] and a tour of the UK in 2011–2012.

The play is a three-act drama which takes place on a single night on 5 April 1912.[4] The play focuses on the prosperous upper middle-class Birling family,[5] who live in a comfortable home in the fictional town of Brumley, "an industrial city in the north Midlands."[4] The family is visited by a man calling himself Inspector Goole (otherwise known as 'The Inspector'), who questions the family about the suicide of a young working-class woman in her mid-twenties. Long considered part of the repertory of classic drawing-room theatre, the play has also been hailed as a scathing criticism of the hypocrisies of Victorian and Edwardian English society and as an expression of Priestley's socialist political principles. The play is notable amongst students as many British schools study it as one of the prescribed texts for the GCSE English Literature course.[6]

Synopsis

Set in 1912, at the Birlings' large home in the industrial town of Brumley, Arthur Birling, who is a wealthy factory owner and local politician, celebrates his daughter Sheila's engagement to a rival magnate's son, Gerald Croft. Also in attendance are Birling's wife Sybil and their young, alcoholic son Eric (whose drinking problem the family discreetly ignores). Following dinner, Birling lectures them on the importance of self-reliance and looking after one's own, and talks of the bright future that awaits them (which, he believes, will include a place for himself on the next honours list). While the men confabulate, Sheila and Sybil leave the dining room to go into their drawing room.

The evening is interrupted by the arrival of a man calling himself Inspector Goole, who is investigating the suicide of a young woman named Eva Smith. Her diary, the Inspector explains, refers to members of the Birling family. Goole produces a photograph of Smith and shows it to Birling, who acknowledges that she worked in one of his factories. He admits to having dismissed her for leading strike action with most of the female workers demanding equal pay to males. Despite admitting that he left Smith without a job, Birling denies responsibility for her death.

Sheila (having been sent by her mother to bring Birling, Eric and Gerald to the drawing room) is shown the photograph of Smith. She explains that as she was out shopping with her mother, Sheila noticed a nice dress for sale and asked for help with trying on the dress. Smith, having been able to find employment at the shop, was one of the two helpers. Unsatisfied after trying on the dress, Sheila angrily ordered the manager of the department store to fire Smith. Sheila's real motivation, which she ashamedly confesses, was the jealousy that she felt towards Smith perceiving her as prettier than herself, and that the dress would have suited Smith's figure much better than Sheila's. Eric leaves the dining room.

Sybil enters the dining room shortly after. The Inspector then mentions that Smith changed her name to Daisy Renton. Gerald is noticeably startled, and admits to having met a woman by that name in the Palace Bar, where Smith had resorted to prostitution to sustain herself. Seeing that Smith was hungry and struggling to cope financially, Gerald gave her money and arranged for her to move temporarily into a vacant flat belonging to one of Gerald's friends. Under interrogation, Gerald reveals that he began a relationship with Smith over the summer, but parted with her after a few months. Sheila, disheartened, returns her engagement ring to Gerald, who leaves for a walk.

The Inspector turns his attention to Sybil, a keen patron for a charity that helps women in difficult situations, which Smith (who was by then pregnant and destitute) had turned to for help, using the name "Mrs. Birling". Sybil, seeing this as a mockery of herself, convinced the committee to deny her a grant. She hid her anger under the guise that Smith had been irresponsible and suggested that she find the father, despite Smith repeatedly affirming he wouldn't be of any use. Despite vigorous cross-examination from the Inspector, she denies any wrongdoing. Goole then plays his final card, forcing Sybil to lay the blame on the "drunken young man" who got Smith pregnant. It slowly dawns on the rest of the family, except Sybil, that Eric is the young man who impregnated Eva, and the use of "Mrs. Birling" was in relation to him fathering her child.

Eric then enters, and after brief questioning from Goole, breaks down and admits responsibility for the pregnancy, having forced himself on Smith after a drinking spree at the Palace Bar. After finding out that Smith was pregnant, Eric stole £50 (some £7,300 in 2023) from his father's business to support her and their child, but she refused the stolen money and breaks up with Eric. Birling and Sybil are outraged by Eric's behaviour, and the evening dissolves into angry recriminations. The Inspector concludes by reminding the family that actions have consequences and that all people are intertwined in one society, stating that "if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish."

As the family reminisce over the evening, they begin to question if "Goole" was a real police inspector. Gerald returns after completing his walk, revealing that he had actually gone to talk to a special constable he knew, who 'swore' that he did not know of any police inspector named Goole. To confirm this, Birling makes a phone call to the chief constable, who confirms that there is no Inspector Goole on the force. With a further call to the infirmary confirming that no recent cases of suicide have been reported, the family concludes that the Inspector was a fraud and that they have been the victims of a hoax.

Gerald and the elder Birlings celebrate in relief, but Eric and Sheila continue to rue their and the family's actions. Birling is then rung by the police, who explain that a young woman has just died at the infirmary in a suspected suicide, and that the police are on their way to question the family. The Inspector's identity is left unexplained, but it is clear that the family's confessions over the course of the evening have all been true, and that public disgrace will soon befall them.

Characters

Eva Smith/Daisy Renton

The young girl who allegorically represents the working class in a capitalist society; she doesn't have any lines in the play. All Birling characters behaved in ways that completely altered her life for the worst, culminating in her suicide by drinking some strong disinfectant. The inspector reads her diary before interrogating the Birlings. She is described as being young and pretty, with dark eyes. She also changes her name from Eva Smith to Daisy Renton.

Inspector Goole

The mysterious "Inspector Goole"[7] claims to have seen Eva Smith's dead body earlier that day, and to have been given "a duty" to investigate her death and the Birlings' involvement in it. He seems to be familiar with every detail of the case already, interrogating the family solely to reveal their guilt rather than to discover unknown information. Both during and after Goole's visit, the Birlings question his credentials, and a phone call to the local police station reveals there is no one by his name on the force. Many critics and audiences have interpreted Goole's role as that of an "avenging angel" because of his supernatural omniscience and all-knowing final warning, and even because of his name, which is a homophone for the word "ghoul". It is suggested in the final scene that a quite real investigation will follow Goole's, and his purpose has been to warn the family in advance and encourage them to accept responsibility for their wrongdoing. The Inspector is the drive for Priestley's socialist views within the novela.

Arthur Birling

Arthur Birling is described as "a heavy-looking, rather portentous man in his middle fifties". He represents the capitalist ruling class, repeatedly describing himself with pride as a "hard-headed businessman", and is arguably the main subject of Priestley's social critique. Dominant, arrogant, self-centred, and morally blind, his stubbornness is shown when refusing responsibility for Eva's death; he fired her to quell dissent among his workforce and keep labour costs low, which he says is standard business practice. He remains unaffected by the details of the suicide, and his own concerns appear to be avoiding public scandal, insisting that Eric account for the company money he stole, and convincing Sheila to reconsider her break with Gerald (so as to secure a promised Croft-Birling merger). He is the embodiment of the self-centred upper classes. Arthur Birling is an arrogant and dismissive character used by Priestley as a dramatic vehicle to criticise capitalism, the arrogance of the upper classes, and the ignorance of the elder generations.

Sybil Birling

Sybil Birling, "a rather cold woman" of about fifty, is Arthur's wife. As the leader of a charitable organisation, she assumes a social and moral superiority over Inspector Goole, whose questioning style she frequently refers to as "impertinent" and "offensive". Like her husband, she refuses to accept responsibility for the death of Eva Smith, and seems more concerned with maintaining the family's reputation, even going so far as to lie and deny that she recognizes the girl's picture. She derides women like Eva as immoral, dishonest, and greedy.

Sheila Birling

Sheila Birling is the daughter of Arthur and Sybil Birling, and the older sister of Eric. Sheila begins as a naive and self-centred young woman, but becomes the most sympathetic member of the Birling family over the course of the play, being insecure about her appearance, showing remorse for her part in Eva's downfall and encouraging her family to do the same. By the play's end her social conscience has been awakened and she has a new awareness of her responsibilities to others. She represents the younger generation's break from the selfish behaviour and capitalist views of its forebears. Sheila shows her naivety and lack of maturity in the way she reacts to her father. She is quick to apologise, it is clear that she is keen to behave well. She also refers to her father as 'Daddy', a childish term. As the play progresses, Sheila's character develops and she begins to stand up for herself.

Eric Birling

Eric Birling is the son of Arthur and Sybil Birling and the younger brother of Sheila. Eric is presented as a "Jack the Lad" character with a drinking habit, which led to him forcing himself on Eva and getting her pregnant. He is distanced from the rest of the family and feels he cannot talk to them about his problems. With his sister, he repents of, and accepts responsibility for the way he treated Eva.

Gerald Croft

The son of Sir George and Lady Croft of Crofts Limited, a competitor of Birling and Company, he is at the Birling residence to celebrate his recent engagement to Sheila. Gerald's revealed affair with Eva puts an end to the relationship, though Sheila commends him for his truthfulness and for his initial compassion towards the girl. Gerald believes that Goole is not a police inspector, that the family may not all be referring to the same woman, and that there may not be a body. Initially, he appears to be correct and does not think the Birlings have anything to feel ashamed of or worry about. He seems excited at the prospect of unmasking the "false" Inspector and seems almost desperate for others to believe him.

Edna

Edna is the Birlings' maid, and she represents a working-class member of the Birling household. When the inspector visits the Birling's house she says "an Inspector's called." She is asked to stay up late during the play by Mrs Birling to make tea for the Birling family.

Reception and interpretation

Highly successful after its first and subsequent London productions, the play is now considered one of Priestley's greatest works, and it has been subject to a variety of critical interpretations.

After the new wave of social realist theatre in the 1950s and 1960s, the play fell out of fashion and was dismissed as an example of outdated bourgeois "drawing room" dramas, but it became a staple of regional repertory theatre. Following several successful revivals (including Stephen Daldry's 1992 production for the National Theatre), the play was "rediscovered" and hailed as a damning social criticism of capitalism and middle-class hypocrisy in the manner of the social realist dramas of Shaw and Ibsen. It has been read as a parable about the destruction of Victorian social values and the disintegration of pre-World War I English society, and Goole's final speech has been interpreted variously as a quasi-Christian vision of hell and judgement and as a socialist manifesto.

The struggle between the embattled patriarch Arthur Birling and Inspector Goole has been interpreted by many critics as a symbolic confrontation between capitalism and socialism, and it arguably demonstrates Priestley's socialist political criticism of the perceived selfishness and moral hypocrisy of middle-class capitalist society in 1950s Britain.[8] While no single member of the Birling family is solely responsible for Eva's death, together they function as a hermetic class system that exploits neglected, vulnerable women, with each example of exploitation leading collectively to Eva's social exclusion, despair and suicide. The play also arguably acts as a critique of Victorian-era notions of middle-class philanthropy towards the poor, which is based on presumptions of the charity-givers' social superiority and severe moral judgement towards the "deserving poor". The romantic idea of gentlemanly chivalry towards "fallen women" is also debunked as being based on male lust and sexual exploitation of the weak by the powerful. In Goole's final speech, Eva Smith is referred to as a representation of millions of other vulnerable working-class people, and it can be read as a call to action for English society to take more responsibility for working-class people, prefiguring the development of the post-World War II welfare state.

Productions

An Inspector Calls was first performed in 1945 in two Russian theatres (Moscow's Kamerny Theatre and Leningrad's Comedy Theatre), as a suitable British venue could not be found.[9][10] Priestley had written the play in a single week and all Britain's theatres had already been booked for the season.[11] The play had its first British production in 1946 at the New Theatre in London with Ralph Richardson as Inspector Goole, Harry Andrews as Gerald Croft, Margaret Leighton as Sheila Birling, Julien Mitchell as Arthur Birling, Marian Spencer as Sybil Birling and Alec Guinness as Eric Birling.[12]

The first Broadway production opened at the Booth Theatre on 21 October 1947 and ran for 95 performances until 10 January 1948. The production was staged by Cedric Hardwicke and produced by Courtney Burr and Lassor H. Grosberg. The cast included Melville Cooper as Arthur Birling, John Buckmaster as Gerald Croft, Rene Ray as Sheila Birling, Doris Lloyd as Sybil Birling, Patricia Marmont as Edna, John Merivale as Eric Birling and Thomas Mitchell as Inspector Goole.[13][14]

The play was produced and performed at the Ferdowsi Theatre in Iran in late 1940s based on the translation by Bozorg Alavi. It was staged in the first season of the Edinburgh Gateway Company in 1953.[15]

In 1986 Richard Wilson directed a production at the Royal Exchange, Manchester with Geraldine Alexander as Sheila Birling, Hugh Grant as Eric Birling and Graeme Garden as Inspector Goole.[16]

Tom Baker played Inspector Goole in a 1987 production directed by Peter Dews and designed by Daphne Dare that opened at Theatr Clwyd on 14 April then transferred to London's Westminster Theatre on 13 May 1987. The cast included Pauline Jameson as Sybil Birling, Peter Baldwin as Arthur Birling, Charlotte Attenborough as Sheila Birling, Simon Shepherd as Gerald Croft and Adam Godley as Eric Birling.[17]

A revival of the play by British director Stephen Daldry (produced by PW Productions) opened at the National Theatre's Lyttelton Theatre in September 1992.[18] Daldry's concept was to reference two eras: the 1945 post-war era, when the play was written, and the ostensible historical setting for the work in pre-war 1912; this emphasised the way the character Goole was observing, and deploring, the Birling family's behaviour from Priestley's own cultural viewpoint.[19][20] It won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Revival of a Play, and was widely praised for making the work involving and politically relevant for a modern audience. The production is often credited with single-handedly rediscovering Priestley's works and "rescuing" him from the reputation of being obsolete and class-bound, although the production had some detractors, including Sheridan Morley[21] who regarded it as a gimmicky travesty of the author's patent intentions. The success of the production since 1992 has led to a critical reappraisal of Priestley as a politically engaged playwright who offered a sustained critique of the hypocrisy of English society. A Broadway transfer of the production starring Philip Bosco opened at the Royale Theatre (now the Bernard Jacobs Theatre) on 27 April 1994 and played 454 performances.[22]

Sheila recognises a picture of Eva presented by the Inspector, as Gerald looks on. A 2012 production by OVO theatre company, St Albans

The Stephen Daldry production went on a tour of the UK in 2011 and continued to tour into 2020,[23] with Tom Mannion and Liam Brennan among the actors playing Inspector Goole.[24] The production returned to the Playhouse in London's West End in November 2016, with Liam Brennan in the name part.[20] Brennan once again starred as Inspector Goole in a 2022 tour of the UK billed as the production's Thirtiest Anniversary Tour.

Another production opened on 25 October 1995 at the Garrick Theatre and ran for six years until its transfer to the Playhouse Theatre in 2001.[25] In 2009 it reopened at the Novello Theatre for a year-long run, followed by another transfer to Wyndham's Theatre in December 2009, running for only four months.[26]

Adaptations

The play has been adapted to film or television at least eleven times, including:

Awards and nominations

Awards
1993 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Revival

Editions

References

  1. ^ "An Inspector Calls – Context and Political Views". OxNotes – English Literature Notes. England: OxNotes.com. Archived from the original on 8 October 2018. Retrieved 8 October 2018.
  2. ^ "J B Priestley's scrapbook containing programmes and reviews for An Inspector Calls". The British Library. Archived from the original on 21 June 2021. Retrieved 29 September 2019.
  3. ^ Stringer, Jenny (1996). The Oxford companion to twentieth-century literature in English. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. p. 330. ISBN 978-0-19-212271-1.
  4. ^ a b Priestley, J. B. (1947). Bezant, Tim (ed.). An Inspector Calls: A Play in Three Acts (1992 ed.). London: Heinemann. pp. xi–xiv. ISBN 0-435-23282-7.
  5. ^ Gale, Maggie (2004). "Theatre and drama between the wars". In Nicholls, Peter; Marcus, Laura (eds.). The Cambridge history of twentieth-century English literature. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. p. 328. ISBN 0-521-82077-4. the middle class family was at the centre of much of Priestley's work ... most clearly perhaps in 'An Inspector Calls'.
  6. ^ "Modern texts and poetry". www.aqa.org.uk. Retrieved 4 March 2024.
  7. ^ "Inspector Goole Character Analysis". English Made Simple. England: englishmadesimple.org. 15 November 2020. Archived from the original on 7 February 2023. Retrieved 29 October 2022.
  8. ^ "An Inspector Calls Context Notes – Learn GCSE English Literature". OxNotes GCSE Revision. Archived from the original on 5 December 2019. Retrieved 8 December 2019.
  9. ^ Priestley, J. B. (1950). Introduction to the Plays of J.B.Priestly. Vol. III. London: Heinemann. pp. xii–xiii.
  10. ^ "Remember Eva Smith: The Inspector's Russian Journey". 100 Objects from Special Collections at the University of Bradford. Yorkshire, England: University of Bradford. 15 June 2011. Archived from the original on 7 October 2015. Retrieved 4 October 2015.
  11. ^ "For Students and Teachers | jbpriestleysociety.com". www.jbpriestleysociety.com. Archived from the original on 18 May 2017. Retrieved 25 May 2017.
  12. ^ "An Inspector Calls at New Theatre 1946". www.abouttheartists.com. Retrieved 20 January 2023.
  13. ^ Nathan, George Jean (1948). "An Inspector Calls". The Theatre Book of the Year: A Record and an Interpretation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 113–115.
  14. ^ "An Inspector Calls at Booth Theatre 1947–1948". www.abouttheartists.com. Retrieved 20 January 2023.
  15. ^ Edinburgh Gateway Company (1965), The Twelve Seasons of the Edinburgh Gateway Company, 1953 – 1965, St. Giles Press, Edinburgh, p. 44
  16. ^ "An Inspector Calls at The Royal Exchange 1986". www.abouttheartists.com. Retrieved 20 January 2023.
  17. ^ "An Inspector Calls at Theatr Clwyd and others 1987". www.abouttheartists.com. Retrieved 20 January 2023.
  18. ^ "An Inspector Calls at Lyttelton Theatre 1992–1993". www.abouttheartists.com. Retrieved 20 January 2023.
  19. ^ Woodeson, Nicholas (23 September 2009). "Revisiting Inspector Calls". WhatsOnStage.com. Archived from the original on 8 February 2018. Retrieved 7 February 2018.
  20. ^ a b Gardner, Lyn (13 November 2016). "An Inspector Calls review – Stephen Daldry helps make the case for justice". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 7 February 2018. Retrieved 7 February 2018.
  21. ^ Morley, Sheridan (25 September 1992). "Stop messing about". The Spectator. p. 53. Archived from the original on 5 October 2015. Retrieved 4 October 2015.
  22. ^ "An Inspector Calls". Internet Broadway Database. Archived from the original on 26 October 2016. Retrieved 26 October 2016.
  23. ^ "An Inspector Calls". www.aninspectorcalls.com. Archived from the original on 11 April 2012. Retrieved 9 April 2012.
  24. ^ "An Inspector Calls cast". An Inspector Calls. Archived from the original on 8 September 2019. Retrieved 5 February 2020.
  25. ^ "An Inspector Calls at Garrick Theatre 1995–2001". www.abouttheartists.com. Retrieved 20 January 2023.
  26. ^ "An Inspector Calls at Novello Theatre and others 2009–2010". www.abouttheartists.com. Retrieved 20 January 2023.
  27. ^ "An Inspector Calls (lost television adaptation of play; 1948) – The Lost Media Wiki". lostmediawiki.com. Retrieved 16 September 2023.